The Australian Karen Organisation (AKO) is a national umbrella organisation representing the concerns of the Karen people from Burma. In May 2011, following recognition of the impact on the Karen community of shortages of affordable rental housing, the increasing cost of private rental and long waiting periods for public and community housing in Sydney, the AKO entered into a partnership with Common Equity NSW (CENSW).
CENSW is a not-for-profit community housing provider which holds head leasing agreements with Housing NSW for over 400 properties. CENSW operates on two basic models: cooperative arrangements, where properties are leased to housing cooperatives who take significant responsibility for managing the properties; and directly managed site agreements, where tenants are supported to develop new cooperatives.
Ten single housing units (one person per house) in Merrylands have been reserved for AKO-recommended tenants by CENSW. The units are directly managed by CENSW who communicate directly and regularly with the tenants on matters relating to rental entitlements and property maintenance and to collect rental payments. AKO prioritises and recommends tenants on the basis of need, provides oversight of the arrangement and offers interpreting and translating services between CENSW and tenants. Rents are calculated on the basis of income.
Community members are of mixed age groups and provide support to each other. As one tenant said: “We help one another. He will come with me to Centrelink to sort out my rent assistance entitlements.” Many of the tenants have an agricultural background and grow vegetables in the common garden area for use by all. As another tenant said: “I like to live here; it is safe and affordable. I can stay in touch with my community and we get help from CENSW if we need it.”
AKO currently receives more requests for housing than it has properties available and is in discussions with CENSW about the possibility of transitioning to a formal cooperative arrangement involving a larger number of properties. CENSW does not currently have housing stock available but has provided training to assist current tenants and interested community members with understanding the components and operational structures of housing cooperatives and their rights and obligations under this model.